Weekend project: Ghetto RPC with redis, ruby and clojure

There’s a fair amount of things that are pretty much set on current architectures. Configuration management is handled by chef, puppet (or pallet, for the brave). Monitoring and graphing is getter better by the day thanks to products such as collectd, graphite and riemann. But one area which - at least to me - still has no obvious go-to solution is command and control.

There are a few choices which fall in two categories: ssh for-loops and pubsub based solutions. As far as ssh for loops are concerned, capistrano (ruby), fabric (python), rundeck (java) and pallet (clojure) will do the trick, while the obvious candidate in the pubsub based space is mcollective.

Mcollective has a single transport system, namely STOMP, preferably set-up over RabbitMQ. It’s a great product and I recommend checking it out, but two aspects of the solution prompted me to write a simple - albeit less featured - alternative:

So let me here engage in a bit of NIHilism and describe a redis based approach to command and control.

The scope of the tool would be rather limited and only handle these tasks:

Enter redis

To allow out of order replies, the protocol will need to broadcast requests and listen for replies separately. We will thus need both a pub-sub mechanism for requests and a queue for replies.

While redis is initially an in-memory key value store with optional persistence, it offers a wide range of data structures (see the full list at http://redis.io) and pub-sub support. No explicit queue function exist, but two operations on lists provide the same functionality.

Let’s see how this works in practice, with the standard redis-client redis-cli and assuming you know how to run and connect to a redis server:

  1. Queue Example

    Here is how to push items on a queue named my_queue:

    redis> LPUSH my_queue first
    (integer) 1
    redis> LPUSH my_queue second
    (integer) 2
    redis> LPUSH my_queue third
    (integer) 3

    You can now subsequently issue the following command to pop items:

    redis> BRPOP my_queue 0
    1) "my_queue"
    2) "first"
    redis> BRPOP my_queue 0
    1) "my_queue"
    2) "second"
    redis> BRPOP my_queue 0
    1) "my_queue"
    2) "third"

    LPUSH as its name implies pushes items on the left (head) of a list, while BRPOP pops items from the right (tail) of a list, in a blocking manner, with a timeout argument which we set to 0, meaning that the action will block forever if no items are available for popping.

    This basic queue mechanism is the main mechanism used in several open source projecs such as logstash, resque, sidekick, and many others.

  2. Pub-Sub Example

    Queues can be subscribed to through the SUBSCRIBE command, you’ll need to open two clients, start by issuing this in the first:

    redis> SUBSCRIBE my_exchange
    Reading messages... (press Ctrl-C to quit)
    1) "subscribe"
    2) "my_hub"
    3) (integer) 1

    You are now listening on the my_exchange exchange, issue the following in the second terminal:

    redis> PUBLISH my_exchange hey
    (integer) 1

    You’ll now see this in the first terminal:

    1) "message"
    2) "my_hub"
    3) "hey"
  3. Differences between queues and pub-sub

    The pub-sub mechanism in redis, broadcasts to all subscribers and will not queue up data for disconnect subscribers, where-as queues will deliver to the first available consumer, but will queue up (in RAM, so make sure of your consuming ability)

Designing the protocol

With the following building blocks in place, a simple layered protocol can be designed offering the following functionality, offering the following workflow:

Acknowledgments and replies will be implemented over queues, solely to demonstrate working with queues, using pub-sub for replies would lead to cleaner code.

If we model this around JSON, we can thus work with the following payloads, starting with requests:

request = {
  reply_to: "51665ac9-bab5-4995-aa80-09bc79cfb2bd",
  match: {
    all: false, /* setting to true matches all nodes */
    node_facts: {
      hostname: "www*" /* allowing simple glob(3) type matches */
  command: {
    provider: "uptime",
    args: { 
     averages: {
       shortterm: true,
       midterm: true,
       longterm: true

START responses would then use the following format:

response = {
  in_reply_to: "51665ac9-bab5-4995-aa80-09bc79cfb2bd",
  uuid: "5b4197bd-a537-4cc7-972f-d08ea5760feb",
  hostname: "www01.example.com",
  status: "start"

NOOP responses would drop the sequence UUID not needed:

response = {
  in_reply_to: "51665ac9-bab5-4995-aa80-09bc79cfb2bd",
  hostname: "www01.example.com",
  status: "noop"

Finally, COMPLETE responses would include the result of command execution:

response = {
  in_reply_to: "51665ac9-bab5-4995-aa80-09bc79cfb2bd",
  uuid: "5b4197bd-a537-4cc7-972f-d08ea5760feb",
  hostname: "www01.example.com",
  status: "complete",
  output: {
    exit: 0,
    time: "23:17:20",
    up: "4 days, 1:45",
    users: 6,
    load_averages: [ 0.06, 0.10, 0.13 ]

We essentially end up with an architecture where each node is a daemon while the command and control interface acts as a client.

Securing the protocol

Since this is a proof of concept protocol and we want implementation to be as simple as possible, a somewhat acceptable compromise would be to share an SSH private key specific to command and control messages amongst nodes and sign requests and responses with it.

SSL keys would also be appropriate, but using ssh keys allows the use of the simple ssh-keygen(1) command.

Here is a stock ruby snippet, gem which performs signing with an SSH key, given a passphrase-less key.

require 'openssl'

signature = File.open '/path/to/private-key' do |file|
  digest = OpenSSL::Digest::SHA1.digest("some text")

To verify a signature here is the relevant snippet:

require 'openssl'

valid? = File.open '/path/to/private-key' do |file|

  OpenSSL::PKey::DSA.new(file).sysverify("some text", sig)

This implements the common scheme of signing a SHA1 digest with a DSA key (we could just as well sign with an RSA key by using OpenSSL::PKey::RSA)

A better way of doing this would be to sign every request with the host’s private key, and let the controller look up known host keys to validate the signature.

The clojure side of things

My drive for implementing a clojure controller is integration in the command and control tool I am using to interact with a number of things.

This means I only did the work to implement the controller side of things. Reading SSH keys meant pulling in the bouncycastle libs and the apache commons-codec lib for base64:

(import '[java.security                   Signature Security KeyPair]
        '[org.bouncycastle.jce.provider   BouncyCastleProvider]
        '[org.bouncycastle.openssl        PEMReader]
        '[org.apache.commons.codec.binary Base64])
(require '[clojure.java.io :as io])

(def algorithms {:dss "SHA1withDSA"
                 :rsa "SHA1withRSA"})

;; getting a public and private key from a path
(def keypair (let [pem (-> (PEMReader. (io/reader "/path/to/key")) .readObject)]
               {:public (.getPublic pem)
                :private (.getPrivate pem)}))

(def keytype :dss)

(defn sign
  (-> (doto (Signature/getInstance (get algorithms keytype))
        (.initSign (:private keypair))
        (.update (.getBytes str)))

(defn verify
  [content signature]
  (-> (doto (Signature/getInstance (get algorithms keytype))
        (.initVerify (:public keypair))
        (.update (.getBytes str)))
      (.verify (-> signature Base64/decodeBase64))))

Redis support has several options, I used the jedis Java library which has support for everything we’re interested in.

Wrapping up

I have early - read: with lots of room for improvements, and a few corners cut - implementations of the protocol, both the agent and controller code in ruby, and the controller code in clojure, wrapped in my IRC bot in clojure, which might warrant another article.

The code can be found here: https://github.com/pyr/amiral (name alternatives welcome!)

If you just want to try out, you can fetch the amiral gem in ruby, and start an agent like so:

$ amiral.rb -k /path/to/privkey agent

You can then test querying the agent through a controller:

$ amiral.rb -k /path/to/privkey controller uptime
accepting acknowledgements for 2 seconds
got 1/1 positive acknowledgements
got 1/1 responses
phoenix.spootnik.org: 09:06:15 up 5 days, 10:48, 10 users,  load average: 0.08, 0.06, 0.05

If you’re feeling adventurous you can now start the clojure controller, it’s configuration is relatively straightforward, but a bit more involved since it’s part of an IRC + HTTP bot framework:

{:transports {amiral.transport.HTTPTransport {:port 8080}
              amiral.transport.irc/create    {:host "irc.freenode.net"
                                              :channel "#mychan"}}
 :executors {amiral.executor.fleet/create    {:keytype :dss
                                              :keypath "/path/to/key"}}}

In that config we defined two ways of listening for incoming controller requests: IRC and HTTP, and we added an “executor” i.e: a way of doing something.

You can now query your hosts through HTTP:

$ curl -XPOST -H 'Content-Type: application/json' -d '{"args":["uptime"]}' http://localhost:8080/amiral/fleet
 "message":"phoenix.spootnik.org: 09:40:57 up 5 days, 11:23, 10 users,  load average: 0.15, 0.19, 0.16",
                     "since":"5 days, 11:23",
                     "short":"09:40:57 up 5 days, 11:23, 10 users,  load average: 0.15, 0.19, 0.16"},

Or on IRC:

09:42 < pyr> amiral: fleet uptime
09:42 < amiral> pyr: waiting 2 seconds for acks
09:43 < amiral> pyr: got 1/1 positive acknowledgement
09:43 < amiral> pyr: got 1 responses
09:43 < amiral> pyr: phoenix.spootnik.org: 09:42:57 up 5 days, 11:25, 10 users,  load average: 0.16, 0.20, 0.17

Next Steps

This was a fun experiment, but there are two outstanding problems which will need to be addressed quickly